Study: For older adults, soy & wheat protein can’t compare to animal protein

LONDON — For older adults trying to build or maintain some muscle, all proteins are not equal. That’s the main finding of a new study from The Physiological Society that analyzed the gram-for-gram benefits of animal and plant proteins.

Derivatives from animals, such as milk, cheese, and meat, may be among the first food items that come to mind when one thinks of protein. But, over the past decade or so, veganism has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. More people are choosing to forgo animal-based foods due to health, environmental or animal-rights related concerns.

There’s no question that a vegan lifestyle carries numerous benefits. But the jury is still very much out regarding a vegan diet’s impact on muscle maintenance and growth among older adults. So, the study’s authors decided to investigate.

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Now, it’s universally agreed upon by doctors that the main driver of muscle loss as we age is a decrease in muscle proteins being built with amino acids. Of course, amino acids come from the protein we ingest, and then form while exercising.

Replacing animal proteins with plant-based options

The study reveals that one must eat larger quantities of soy or wheat protein to reap the same muscle building benefits as a smaller amount of animal sources. Consequently, the authors say that if an older person decides to switch over to veganism, it’s in their best interests to make sure they adjust their protein intake. Just eating the same amount of plant protein as one would from an animal derivative will likely lead to muscle loss.

Vegetarian meals to build protein
These meals are examples of vegetarian meals that help build muscle proteins because they consist of a complementary and complete profile of all essential amino acids. (Photo credit: Anita Bean)

With these findings in mind, the research team suggest a balance of both animal and plant proteins as the best possible way to change up one’s dietary routine without sacrificing muscle health in old age.

For the study, a series of lab trials were conducted with a group of volunteers. Participants were asked to eat both animal and plant proteins on different occasions. Then, a number of strategies were employed to test volunteers’ muscle health. These techniques included blood sampling and skeletal muscle biopsies that measured how fast muscles were growing via amino acids.

Future studies necessary

Of all possible plant proteins, only wheat and soy were tested for this study. The study’s authors would like to see more research on other forms of plant protein in the future, such as maize, oat, or quinoa.

“This research challenges the broad viewpoint that plant proteins don’t help build muscles as much as animal protein by highlighting the potential of alternative plant-based protein sources to maintain the size and quality of aging muscles,” concludes Oliver Witard of King’s College London in a release.

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